Two years into the rebuilding process that the Orioles hope will deliver a modern player-development-centric franchise that competes in the richest division in baseball, there’s an understanding among those around the team that what they see every night on the field is something of a placeholder for those future contenders.
The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shutdown on all levels of baseball, from the big leagues on down through the minors and amateur levels, extremely altered the Orioles’ plans for the year. They’ll get a chance to play big league games, but the cancellation of the minor league season dramatically affects the development of their top prospects, the cornerstone of any future major league success at Oriole Park.
On the major league level, the 2020 season might look like more of the same to fans hoping for improvement from the 115-loss 2018 team or the slight improvement in 2019.
Whether it’s the areas that second-year manager Brandon Hyde wants to address on the major league field or the countless facets that executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is targeting for growth on the scouting and player development side, there will be plenty for the Orioles to accomplish outside wins and losses.
Here are five things that will define whether the 2020 season is a success as the team’s rebuild continues:
1. Will the games be easier to watch?
No matter how deeply invested in the team’s rebuild one can be, there’s still a game every day that represents what most of the world sees of the Orioles. And the last two years have been pretty tough to watch.
In 2019, there were offensive strides for several players, and the Orioles were liable to break out offensively on a nightly basis. But outside of John Means and Hunter Harvey for the one month he was on the roster, every other pitcher that took the mound for the Orioles was a total wild card. Hardly any lead was safe, and that meant even investing in a game the Orioles were winning could turn sideways in a hurry.
The team has gone to great lengths to give them more major league-caliber depth, especially on the pitching front. Wade LeBlanc, Kohl Stewart and Tommy Milone either have major league pedigrees or the stuff that the Orioles think could grow into a reliable contributor while allowing pitching prospects to develop on the farm. The bullpen with Harvey and more consistency from the likes of Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro could be a better one.
All that would not only give the Orioles a better chance to win, but make the nightly experience a much more pleasant one.
2. Which of the rebuilding players can shed that tag?
Starting with adding Renato Núñez from the minors after the Manny Machado trade and pretty much through the present, there’s a stigma on all of the major leaguers the Orioles have brought in to bridge their gap to a better future. From Núñez and Hanser Alberto to Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino, and from Shawn Armstrong to Asher Wojciechowski on the pitching side, those players were better than what was here before but maybe not what was needed for the team to get where it wants to go.
All had track records of some kind in the majors but got significant opportunity to play regularly and see if they could stick. Alberto certainly did, and all showed at one point or another what they were capable of.
There’s still another level to being a regular major leaguer in a non-Orioles context, and it seems like a lot of the same characters will be back to try and reach that goal. Overall, the early returns in spring show that even the players who had a great opportunity last year and took it are realizing that there’s another gear required. Showing that this season will make this team a lot better.
3. Will the young homegrown players solidify themselves?
In the past two-plus years, well-regarded homegrown prospects such as Chance Sisco, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart have all made their major league debuts and had mixed results. Admittedly, each basically had his development restarted in the minors by a new front office who believed they’d previously been rushed to the majors.
But only Hays entered this offseason with momentum, and it’s unclear who, if any of them, will break camp with the team. In 2020, Ryan Mountcastle will join this class of Dan Duquette-era draftees trying to make it in an Elias world. He, Hays, and any of the rest would do well to show that they can consistently hit and defend at the major league level.
That would give fans something bright for the present and the future, and clear the path for some of the later-era Duquette draftees to avoid a stigma that so many of these players can’t make it. They seem equipped to do so.
4. How many of these guys will be here when it matters ...?
No matter how they fare this year, or how much easier the losses are to stomach, there’s an overriding question hanging over any rebuilding team: Which players are just there for the present and which are there for the future?
Casting their veterans aside, there are probably two categories of Orioles to evaluate for this: the arbitration-eligible players, which would have included Trey Mancini before his cancer diagnosis along with Givens and Richard Bleier, and the much larger group of pre-arbitration players.
We know by the Dylan Bundy trade that someone who was going to cost the Orioles more than the minimum salary for the next two seasons but will make the major league team better wasn’t something they particularly valued. That means that if they get good first halves out of the types of players who are starting to cost them more than a half-million dollars, they could decide that the trade return of younger players is more valuable.
Where the line gets drawn is with the likes of Means and Harvey, and anyone else who has come up in the last year-plus and is establishing himself in the majors. For them, it’s not so much about whether they’re of the quality to be on a championship team in Baltimore as much as whether they will be good enough to grow with the team as it gets to that point.
Carryover players from previous regimes play a big part in the ultimate success of a new front office’s rebuild plan. These are the types of players they’ll want to identify and keep straight away.
5. … and if not, which can yield more talent for the future?
For those who aren’t going to be around, it will be fascinating to see what they can yield in a trade. The last two years of trades, first by Duquette and more recently by Elias, have yielded two kinds of players.
Duquette’s were for minor league breakout performers and players in the high minors, many of whom hold promise but haven’t made a major league impact and probably won’t until this season at the earliest. Elias’ were all relative babies when it came to their professional experience, and are difficult to evaluate as returns because they’re so far away from the majors.
If the Orioles are going to a name player off their 2020 roster, they might do well to mix in a player who can make a more immediate impact to diversify the pitcher-heavy high minors that they’re going to be drawing talent from in the next year or so.